Oh my. Last night D. and I finished watching the newest BBC version of Jane Eyre. A four hour version, it aired on Masterpiece Theater on PBS recently. Since we have no television reception, my kind and thoughtful parents agreed to tape it for me. This turned out to be a labor of love indeed since they'd recently gotten a new DVD/VCR player and hadn't figured out how to record things on it yet. I am grateful they were willing to sit down with the owner's manual to tape this wonderful film for their literary movie-loving youngest daughter!
I say "oh my" because I thought this film was astonishingly well done -- beautifully acted and creatively adapted. And romantic. Was it ever romantic. Gaspingly, beautifully, erotically, gothically romantic.
I will confess I am not a huge Bronte fan, at least in most things. I like some of the Bronte sisters' poetry, but their novels have never had that place of honor in my heart occupied by the earlier Jane Austen. Some of this, I think, has to do with my temperament. Austen is calmer, cooler and funnier. The Brontes tend to be more highly-charged, more tinged with near-tragedy, to wear their romantic hearts on their sleeves. When I read Wuthering Heights, I felt like I slogged through the rain-soaked pages. The Brontes are far more about atmosphere for the sake of atmosphere than Austen ever was.
With all that said, I really do love the novel Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte's masterpiece is so beautifully rendered. My love of the book came over me gradually; it didn't hit me on the first reading. That may be because I first read it in high school, in a class with a tired, burned-out teacher who had a knack of turning me off to great literature. (I know she didn't do it on purpose, and as I look back I actually wince when I realize how challenging it must have been to teach 30-some mostly ungrateful students, some of whom caused constant disruptions...but I digress). I tried hard to like the novel. I wrote a theme on the book that was even more tired than my poor teacher. And I remember feeling disappointed in myself for not "getting" Jane Eyre at a deeper level.
My expectations were high because my grandmother, whom I called Mamaw, had read and re-read the novel for years. When she moved in with my family when I was nine years old, she brought only a handful of books with her from her huge library (the rest was auctioned off for a song...talk about tragedy!) but Jane Eyre was one of them. She read it at least once a year. I wanted to love it, if for no other reason than the fact that my beloved grandmother, who by then had passed away, loved it.
I went back to it with some trepidation in a college Victorian Lit. class a few years later. The professor was gifted at opening the world of books to eager students. That helped enormously. But I think it was just also "the right time" for me to read it. In my early 20s, I identified with Jane in ways that I never could have at 16. I fell into the music of the prose and suddenly, I "got it." I felt the depths of emotions, the power of the scenes. Like a million women before me (Mamaw no doubt included) I fell under the spell of Mr. Rochester.
I've seen bits of film versions before, but never (I don't think) an entire adaptation. I suppose I should see some of the older ones now, just for comparison, but I have a hard time believing anyone is going to top this. Ruth Wilson, a very young and relatively untried English actress, embodies Jane Eyre -- her fierce reserve and propriety, her ardent love -- better than I imagined anyone could. And Toby Stephens is astonishing in the role of Mr. Rochester -- just the right mix of tantalizing, moody, intimidating, despicable, and virile. No wonder Jane trembles in his presence in the scene when they're reunited (and yes, they even captured the trembling water glass! wow!). The chemistry between the actors was so thick you could cut it with a knife. You really believed these two were soul-mates.
I have some criticism of the adaptation which I'll not go into until I can really review it, but overall, this was just a gorgeous film. I'm guessing the passion in the love scenes was more intense than in any earlier adapatation -- would that make Mamaw blush? Maybe. But maybe not. The book is intensely passionate; the obstacles that hold these two people apart feel unbearably insurmountable. I have a feeling the beauty and passion were part of what drew my grandmother to the book again and again.
Seeing the film has made me go back to the book, of course. And what a treat it is that I have Mamaw's copy. Her name is on the fly-leaf, along with the year she bought it (1947). It's a beautiful leather-bound copy and the spine is in tatters from all the times she read it. I never want to fix that broken binding -- because it binds me to the past, to my memories of my wonderful bookish grandmother and her love for good literature. A love she happily passed on to me.